Can fast fashion be made sustainable?

How the failure of plastics recycling casts doubt on fashion's dream of a circular economy

The modern fashion industry is complicated. It relies on both political and economic processes that enable globalised supply chains and on human psychology, which drives us to desire new clothing on a regular basis. The industry is environmentally damaging in almost every possible way, on top of being notorious for greenwashing. There is a vague vision of building a circular economy, which aims to reuse and recycle existing products as long as possible, but upon closer inspection, this model bears strong resemblance to the failed project of plastic recycling.

Constructing a circular economy would involve addressing three main issues: materials, design, and reuse. Recycling is part of both the “materials” and “reuse” parts of the cycle, in that manufactures must make clothing with recyclable textiles and in that consumers must dispose of these textiles in appropriate ways. An op-ed published in Nature highlights the importance of recycling in the circular economy, and recommends a rapid expansion of technologies for both recycling and sustainable manufacturing of textiles. In addition to expanding recycling technology, clothing should also be designed to facilitate recycling, for example by inserting zips in a way that allows them to be easily removed when clothes are recycled.

At the same time as the circular economy is being heralded as a potential saviour of fast fashion, we’re beginning to come to terms with the failure of plastic recycling. An analysis of the failures of plastic recycling, titled “Circular Claims Fall Flat Again,” was published by the environmental non-profit Greenpeace USA in late October. The study states five reasons for the failure of mechanical and chemical recycling of plastics: that it is difficult to collect, impossible to sort, environmentally harmful to reprocess, made of and contaminated by toxic materials, and not economical. Given that synthetic textiles are plastic-based, what makes us think that recycling these products would be any different?

More fundamental, to my mind, is that even “recyclable” products and materials are extremely difficult to collect. The Greenpeace analysis states that even the plastic and recycling industries admit that collection of plastic waste from consumers is a significant obstacle to plastics recycling. While the industries involved claim that a lack of curbside recycling bins and collection is the main issue, California’s low plastic recycling rate suggests that this is not the whole picture. Curbside recycling has been the norm there since 1989, to little avail. The fact that individuals struggle with recycling even when collected from their homes suggests that textile recycling, even if it were made more widely available, may not be successful. Even if we develop technologies that biodegrade or can be made into new products, the legacy of plastic recycling suggests that these products will end up in landfills regardless.

The second reason for the failure of plastics recycling, that mixed plastic waste is difficult to sort and cannot be recycled together, is also relevant to the application of recycling to fashion. Clothing items, like plastics, are often made from many different components, such as natural yarns, synthetic fibres, plastics, and metals. A BBC article states that this mix of components makes the fibres hard to separate to allow them to be recycled. This sorting of textiles into different fibres and material types by hand is labour intensive, slow, and would require trained workers. All these factors mean that the economic feasibility of such recycling may not be very great, an issue which was another of the major pitfalls of plastic recycling.

There is always an element of uncertainty when it comes to environmental solutions. In this case, however, 30 years of failed plastic recycling demonstrate that reducing the environmental impact of fast fashion by recycling alone is wishful thinking. Although there are other suggestions, such as biodegradable fashion, the failure of compostable plastics suggests this may also not be effective. While the circular economy appears to consist of top-down solutions involving infrastructure development and technological innovation, it ultimately relies on individual action.

This seems to suggest that fast fashion cannot be sustainable, in that as soon as a clothing item enters an individual’s possession, it cannot make it back into the supply chain without the willing participation of that individual. Thus, behavioural change will have to be part of the solution.

Image credit: Fernand de Canne on Unsplash